President Donald Trump blocked the public release Friday of a classified House Democratic memo written in response to Republican claims that the FBI inappropriately spied on a Trump campaign adviser in 2016, prompting furious Democratic charges of hypocrisy and political exploitation of intelligence secrets.
The House of Representatives can still vote to release the memo despite Trump’s action, which could set the stage for a partisan brawl in the House next week over the document’s fate.
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Trump on Saturday tweeted: “The Democrats sent a very political and long response memo which they knew, because of sources and methods (and more), would have to be heavily redacted, whereupon they would blame the White House for lack of transparency. Told them to re-do and send back in proper form!”
The dueling Republican and Democratic memos are part of a larger fight over the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling. Many Democrats consider the fight a Republican diversion meant to distract from the underlying question of whether the Kremlin infiltrated the Trump campaign.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee issued their memo to rebut an earlier House Republican document which accused the FBI of misleading a federal judge to obtain an October 2016 warrant to spy on Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Trump approved the release of the GOP memo, despite the FBI’s public objection, and insisted that it “totally vindicates” him — even though the Republican document only speaks to one component of the FBI’s sprawling probe into Russian election meddling.
A Friday night statement from White House Counsel Don McGahn said that Trump was “inclined” but “unable” to declassify the 10-page memo because it “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.”
The statement was accompanied by a letter from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that identifies “information for which national security or law enforcement concerns are especially significant.” Like the GOP memo, the Democratic document draws from classified intelligence about the FBI’s Russia probe.
McGahn wrote that Trump had directed the Justice Department to provide “technical assistance” to the House intelligence panel should it wish to “revise” the document for possible release.
Democrats were furious at Trump’s decision, which they called proof that Republicans are exploiting classified information for political ends.
“The hypocrisy is on full display,” tweeted House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “What does the President have to hide?”
Hours after the White House’s announcement, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said in a statement that the Democratic memo could still be released after the redaction of sensitive passages flagged by Wray and Rosenstein.
“Intelligence Committee Republicans encourage the minority to accept the [Justice Department’s] recommendations and make the appropriate technical changes and redactions so that no sources and methods are disclosed and their memo can be declassified as soon as possible,” said Nunes.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and other Democrats said Friday night that they would work with the Justice Department to address its concerns.
The House Intelligence Committee can overrule Trump’s decision and vote to send the Democratic memo to the full House, which would then meet in a secret session to debate whether to make the document public by a majority vote. Both actions would require some Republican support.
Democrats had asked for a review of their document from the Justice Department and FBI in advance of its release. The House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted Monday to release the full Democratic memo, a signal that the committee believes “the public interest would be served” by the release of the document.
Democrats believe their memo refutes the GOP account of the surveillance warrant the FBI secured against Page, a previously little-known investment banker and energy consultant with a longtime interest in Russia whom Trump named to his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016.
Orchestrated by Nunes, the Republican memo accused senior FBI officials of failing to disclose that the warrant to surveil Page was based, in part, on a dossier compiled by a former British spy whose work was financed by the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Democrats say their memo shows that the FBI did note the dossier’s political origins in an October 2016 application for a warrant to monitor Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — and that Republicans mischaracterized the extent to which the FBI relied on the dossier to obtain its warrant, which was approved by a federal judge.
Nunes and other Republicans have publicly conceded that the FBI’s application disclosed that the dossier had political backing, but complain that the information was relegated to a footnote.
Democrats also note that the FBI’s Russia investigation began months before the FBI sought a warrant against Page, who visited Moscow in July 2016 and whom the FBI previously investigated after he was the target of a 2013 recruitment effort by a pair of Russian spies in New York City. One or more judges approved three subsequent 90-day renewals of the warrant against Page, which suggests that the FBI’s surveillance was collecting suspicious information, legal experts say.
Some Republicans with national security and intelligence backgrounds were sharply critical of Trump’s decision Friday.
“The White House’s failure to declassify the House Intelligence Committee minority memo — particularly in the face of unanimous bipartisan vote by the committee — represents a massive strategic miscalculation,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House who has also served as senior counsel to the House Intelligence Committee.
“The decision to reject the committee’s request simply plays into the partisan narrative about the Nunes memo and deprives the American public of the benefit of both sides of highly politicized debate,” added Jaffer, now a professor at George Mason University.
Senate Democrats also denounced Trump’s decision.
“Refusal to release Democratic response to [the GOP memo] — evidence of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump happening in real time,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Although Republicans on the committee unanimously voted to send the memo to Trump earlier this week for a decision on its release, they questioned its accuracy and warned that it contained national security information that should not be disclosed.
“I have numerous concerns with the public release of this information,” Nunes told colleagues shortly before voting to release the document. He said the memo “contains a large volume of classified information, including some touching on sources and methods heightening the potential to damage nationals security.”
“Nevertheless, in the interest of fairness and transparency, and because I am confident that classification issues would be appropriately addressed by the executive branch’s review process, I plan to vote in favor of making this memo publicly available,” he added.
A public statement from the FBI had objected to the “accuracy” of the Republican memo, but the bureau did not publicly say that it revealed national security information that should remain secret.
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